Julie Braga started with Marriott International in 1997, initially working at the front desk while in college before steadily advancing up the ranks. Today, she is general manager of the Residence Inn by Marriott Melbourne.
Leah Blackmore began in the hotel business approximately a decade later, as a housekeeper/college student in North Carolina. Now, she is general manager for the Marriott Courtyard Melbourne.
Coincidence that each is excelling almost side by side? Not in the least.
While Marriott has been instrumental in nurturing their careers and others, as part of a distinct corporate philosophy, Braga and Blackmore have rolled up their sleeves both figuratively and literally —taking their current roles almost simultaneously in August 2018.
Braga had career interest in hospitality management, and she wanted more than classroom learning. Even before graduating from the University of Central Florida with a marketing degree, she had received her first promotion with Marriott, to a sales coordinator. Within a week of graduating in 2000, she landed her first managerial position as an operations manager.
Similarly, Blackmore always knew she wanted to work in travel and tourism. Attending college in North Carolina, she took a job at a nearby hotel because it was the closest she could walk to, while also dabbling in insurance sales. With Marriott, she went from housekeeping to laundry duty to the front desk and beyond, getting her big break in her hometown of Nashville as a hotel manager. That set the stage for stints in Nevada and Miami before arriving in Melbourne.
As good fortune would have it, the general manager positions at the Residence Inn and Courtyard were originally meant to be shared, as they were previously for many years. When the two roles were divided, opportunity struck for Braga and Blackmore — but again without coincidence. Jim Ridenour, the dual GM of both hotels, was retiring. As part of Marriott’s leadership mandate, he had mentored and encouraged Braga and Blackmore. Also, Ridenour introduced them to key organizations across the region, strengthening their community backgrounds with involvement in groups such as the Melbourne Regional Chamber. The duo then did the rest.
“[Ridenour] really gave me many of the opportunities I had to grow with the company. He believed in me and pushed me into opportunities when sometimes I didn’t believe in myself,” said Braga, echoing comments by Blackmore. “That’s the value of any mentorship… Looking back, it was incredibly instrumental in my career.”
These days, they are seeking to return the favor for staff members (associates) at their own hotels — as a blend of corporate commitment personal approach.
“Women helping women” is part of it, for certain. Yet, the approach is even more expansive.
“Growing talent and helping people find their path is a passion of mine,” said Braga. “And I think I did learn that. It’s very, very rewarding to see young people decide to have a career in hospitality and watch them grow. Whatever it is I want to help people become the best that they can be, and help them through whatever hurdles there are.”
In her hotel, Blackmore believes in training across departments, with the “expectation that you’re not a particular department; you’re everything.” In the community, she wants engagement from staff members.
“Mentorship would be really, ultimately, the idealistic thing that I would want to be known for. … Advocating the next generation to be continue to grow and plug in and desire and want more.”
Meanwhile, Braga and Blackmore have made their own community impacts. Braga has served on numerous chamber committees and is a past chairperson there. Another organization is weVENTURE, which provides business education and mentoring to women Brevard, Indian River and St. Lucie counties. Each time she volunteers for an organization, she starts solely intent on helping out. Ultimately, the volunteerism also winds up helping her.
“We live in an amazing place, so for me it’s very rewarding to get involved in the community and give back,” Braga said.
Blackmore, citing a business community that is strong and poised for more growth, concluded: “It’s just so important that we mentor each other, to be there for one another.”